Initiative to improve, expand introductory CS course sequence reports first year results

RENEW-CS aims to improve the undergraduate student experience for the first set of courses in the major, as well as increase the number of women studying computing.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, the primary introductory courses in computer science at the University of Michigan added more sections, introduced more guided and intensive labs for students new to the discipline, and launched a semester-long student mentorship program. These outcomes are part of an ongoing initiative to improve the student experience in early CS classes and increase the number of women studying computing. Called RENEW-CS, the program was launched in Fall 2021 by a team of course instructors to “make CSE better for everyone at the undergraduate level.”

“This project has really brought teaching-focused faculty, staff, and research-focused faculty together to focus on some of the big issues facing CSE,” says Prof. Westley Weimer, a lead investigator on the project. 

The initiative is focused on five courses that comprise the main introductory pathway to computing majors, the faculty say. These include EECS 110: Discover Computer Science, EECS 183: Elementary Programming Concepts, EECS 203: Discrete Mathematics, and EECS 280: Programming and Intro Data Structures. The team has been recently joined by project manager Rachel Germaine, who is assisting with many of the project activities.

“The effort has already started to pay off,” says Janice M. Jenkins Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Rada Mihalcea, a lead investigator on the project, “with successes on multiple fronts, including an increase in the enrollment for our Discover CS class, a growing enrollment in our undergraduate mentorship program, and more.”

Expanding and improving introductory courses EECS 110 and EECS 183

EECS 110 and EECS 183 have been many students’ first experience with computing. EECS 110 is designed to introduce underrepresented student populations to the field, and has now been offered in the Fall semester for five years. As part of RENEW-CS, under the leadership of Dr. Laura Burdick who is an investigator on the project, the course was expanded to hold sections in both the Fall and Winter semesters. The instructors plan to focus on increasing student enrollment in the course, with the goal of reaching two sections of 40 students each in the fall and winter semesters.

With coordination from project investigator Dr. William Arthur, EECS 183 piloted a lab section in the Winter semester specifically designed to support the goals of the RENEW-CS project. This lab section targeted students who were interested in CS, but hadn’t yet declared a major. The lab focused on supporting these students by providing additional learning opportunities, the instructors say. These extra opportunities included a CS industry panel, a small research graduate student panel with flash talks on CS research, and a CS graduate student interview project.

Improving EECS 203

EECS 203 piloted two lab sections modeled to provide more support for students, called Focus on Fundamentals. These sections were two hours long instead of one hour and had four Instructional Assistants (IAs) teaching 40 students rather than one. Next fall semester, the team plans to offer three Focus on Fundamentals sections with a similar teaching model, but with 2 IAs teaching 20 students per section and required attendance.

In addition to this change, the EECS 203 team led by RENEW-CS investigator Dr. Kim Diaz worked to streamline the course’s content and provide more support for students, the instructors say. The team developed handouts to accompany each lecture, to guide students in note-taking and highlighting the most important parts of each lecture. Other issues the team has addressed so far include striving for better grading transparency for students, incorporating a growth mindset into course content, and focusing on more professional development and communication skills education in staff meetings.

Undergraduate mentoring program

Prof. Barbara Ericson, one of the project’s lead investigators, piloted a student mentorship program for ENGR 101, EECS 183, EECS 203, and EECS 280 for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Mentorship sessions that help students with current issues in their course material are held once or twice a week per class depending on student interest, as well as one longer special interest session held once a month for 2-3 hours. Mentors receive mentorship training, culturally responsive training, and training on how to run a successful help session. Another important part of this program relates to Ericson’s interest in developing free, interactive CS e-textbooks, which are a resource that mentors can utilize during help sessions.

In the Winter 2022 semester the program grew to include 12 student mentors and 87 student mentees. For the Fall 2022 – Winter 2023 academic year, the mentorship program will focus on EECS 183, 203, and 280.

Improved instructor hiring and training

In addition to these course changes, the project worked to expand existing efforts to improve student instructor hiring and training practices. Through changes to the teaching assistant application process, guided in part by Dr. Amir Kamil, a lead investigator on the project, U-M was able to achieve a 52% female teaching staff in EECS 280 in the 2020-2021 academic year. After the launch of RENEW-CS, the effort expanded into improving IA and GSI training.

Currently, inclusive teaching training is offered every fall and winter semester and includes a beginner option for new student instructors and an advanced option for returning staff. This semester, the instructors say, a group of faculty succeeded in lifting a weekly work hour requirement for student instructors that had been cited as a major barrier to faculty requiring their instructors to participate in the inclusive teaching training. Now, IAs and GSIs who take the training will be compensated for their additional time, helping incentivize expanded participation in the training.

“Many of us on the project are particularly excited about the Spring and Summer as opportunities to plan,” says Weimer. “Our large core courses in CSE can be difficult to change while they are running, but before the Fall semester we’ll have a great opportunity to plan and discuss course changes, reforms and measurements for the future.”

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Amir Kamil; Barbara Ericson; Division News; Rada Mihalcea; Westley Weimer